PITTSBURGH – As Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick held court with assembled media following his team’s 17-12 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, his assessment of his performance and that of his defensive teammates gave the impression that Pittsburgh had just lost to the Rams at Heinz Field.
While helping – possibly carrying – the Steelers (5-4) to their fourth straight win, the defense held Los Angeles to three of the 12 points that it scored while also generating three of the four Rams turnovers on the day.
But they did allow three points.
“There’s some things that we could have done better,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some things I could have done better. They also put three points on the board. They drove down the field and they put points on the board. So we’ve got to keep being consistent, keep getting better week to week.”
Fitzpatrick himself was a part of two Los Angeles turnovers, returning a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
A victory-sealing interception that went through cornerback Joe Haden’s hands meant that Fitzpatrick had collected his fifth interception since joining the team after getting traded by the Miami Dolphins in Week 3.
The fumble return score was the first instance of a Steelers defensive player scoring touchdowns in back-to-back weeks since Sam Washington turned the trick in 1984.
It was enough to prompt a reporter to ask if Fitzpatrick was hiding a ball magnet.
“There ain’t no ball magnets,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just being in the right position. Making sure that I’m in the right spot.”
His coach was quick to confirm that there isn’t a good-luck charm leading to the production.
“It is not anything mystical,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He doesn’t have a rabbit’s foot in his pocket. He is preparing and taking advantage of opportunities. It is reasonable to expect it to continue, provided we are in an environment where those plays happen.”
For the second-year product from Alabama, who turns 23 next Sunday, being in the right spot happens thanks to knowing where the right spot is before kickoff.
“We do it in practice,” Fitzpatrick said. “… A couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t in the right spot a couple of times, and (Coach Tomlin) challenged me to be in the right spot. So I’ve been in the right spot. Everyone’s been in the right spot and we’ve been making plays.”
It isn’t just Fitzpatrick, though. One would be silly to assume that, but his addition has brought a completeness to a defense that has been a chaos factory for almost the entire season.
The Steelers have posted 33 sacks and 26 turnovers through nine games, putting them in conversation – statistically – with some of the franchise’s all-time great defenses.
“We have been open about the fact that we need turnovers,” Tomlin said. “Great defenses get themselves off the field. Great defenses stand up in the face of adversity when put on a short field. We have worked hard in that area. It starts with the acquisition of guys who are capable in that area.”
And what are the results of the work and the results? Joy.
“I’m having a ball,” Haden said. “That was a good win, and last week too off the missed field goal. It’s so good to come into the locker room after a win. When we started 0-3, we weren’t feeling too good. We were a little down on ourselves.”
That isn’t to say that the Steelers are purely giddy in having won five of their past six games.
“We’re just 5-4. We played a quality opponent,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We just gotta keep battling every week. I know it’s not going to be perfect, but what better way to do it when we have mistakes than to get the ‘W’?”
But there can be satisfaction in a job well done on a week where the Steelers registered four sacks and limited the Rams to one third-down conversion on 14 tries.
Holding Rams receiver Cooper Kupp – the NFL’s top pass catcher on third down – to zero catches a game after he torched the Cincinnati Bengals for 220 yards on seven catches on Oct. 27 in London, played a big part in that third-down success.
“We doubled him a lot,” Tomlin said. “He’s the No. 1 receiver in the NFL on third down. All our third-down discussions started there. Minimizing his ability to impact the game in that way and then working out from there.”
That came even when the Rams were a pass-only offense down the stretch with the Steelers holding onto a narrow lead. That led to some perilous moments for Rams quarterback Jared Goff as Pittsburgh kept a steady stream of pass rushers coming to the Los Angeles backfield.
“I think when we were able to make them pass the ball,” Heyward said. “I just thought we got pressure on him so he never got comfortable back there. He felt rattled.”
With a short week and the Cleveland Browns waiting on Thursday, will the productivity and chaos continue to repeat itself?
“We have to get in the lab and see what Cleveland does and how we match up against them and what the issues are,” Tomlin said. “Our confidence is steeped in preparation and understanding each individual matchup.”